An upside can hanging on a lonely stick in front of a house might look odd to anyone who is not familiar with what it symbolizes and what it represents. That simple act has been an age-old symbol of telling passerby’s you have Tela in your household to sell. That simple sign excites workers, who’ve been toiling all day, to look forward to quench their thirst, and a safe-haven to escape the worries of what life brings.
“As a kid, I thought Tela and tej were drinks for people who couldn’t afford the expensive drinks, but that was before I tasted them. Tej is like wine but better, while tela is beer but way better. That is only my opinion and I didn’t always have this opinion,” Addisu Mesfin, a lover of the traditional drink, said to The Reporter adding, tej and tela are underrated in Addis Ababa.
“When I first started telling people that I prefer tela over beer, my peers automatically labeled me as an old man but through time, they too came around, at least some of them did,” Addisu added.
Before beer was commercialized in Ethiopia, the go-to alcoholic beverage used to be tej and tela, with at least one tela/tej house situated in every neighborhood. But through time, bars overtook the ones’ favored traditional houses.
With the entry of many local and international breweries into the market and globalization ablaze, bottled beer varieties and consumption in the country, has visibly increased. Dominated by breweries, more people gravitated towards western-style beers and other liquors, leaving the age old tradition on the wayside.
Tej and tela have been the unsung heroes of holidays, family get-togethers and other festivities for decades. With communities starting to form in cities with readily available water supplies, the cultural practice of always having tela readily available, started to be limited to rural communities and special occasions.
“I remember my mom telling me when she was a child; they had more tela at home than drinking water; that people drank tela with meals and the hour’s in-between meals when they felt thirsty,” said Mahlet Ashenafi, a 22-year-old girl who has grown fond of the traditional Ethiopian drinks.
“From my experience, if I see tela at home, I automatically assume there is some form of celebration, a funeral or a holiday. The only time my mom makes traditional alcoholic beverages, is when there are guests involved,” added Mahlet.
In recent years, the youth of Addis Ababa have shown a new found fondness towards the traditional drinks, especially tela. More and more local businesses like Selo, a tela bar located in Bole that exclusively serves a variety of tela, Shifta, Fendika, a cultural center that promotes local beverages and food, and places like Deshesho restaurant, serve these local beverages to customers. These places have even put the products as a selling point to consumers.
However, tej bet (tej houses) were looked down on at first due to various factors such as cheapness and quality of the establishments it was found in. The fact that it has no labels concerning alcoholic content and the like also played a role.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there is a two to four percent alcohol content in a normal tela and up to five or six percent in a filtered one. While the percentage of alcohol in a home brewed tela remains to be unknown for the most part, most providers know nothing of the amount, and consumers could not care less either.
But now they are less looked down on by the masses, mostly attributed to bigger establishments providing the product befitting to the times. Tej was also considered the drink of the nobles back in Ethiopia’s monarchial ages.
The popularity of tela and tej amongst local consumers is increasing even with foreigners showing a keen liking to it. However, it is not as widely spread as beer, considering how widely it was consumed in the heydays of tela/ tej houses.
Customers of these newly popularized and commercialized establishments praise the variety, taste and quality of the products. Even though Ethiopia is a long way away from bottled Tela and Tej at a factory level, the availability of the products in establishments has increased, pleasing many.
“The taste and even its aroma, is unmatched for me. I’ve always gotten excited at the sight of tela at weddings, funerals, holidays and stuff like that, but I was also scared to step into those houses as a young person. But now, I can go into places like Selo or Shifta and have a cup of the good stuff with ease. And the vibe in those places is worth the visit by itself,” added Addisu.
Much like beer, the barely based tela is a drink made of love for its consumers that were then referred to as the common folk.
“I totally get the appeal of tej. I love tej but tela really has my heart. I hope more and more brewers promote these local products just the same as how the Korean’s promote Soju wherever they go,” concluded Addisu.